A 1968 strike by women workers at Ford has inspired the latest British feelgood film. But how far has fiction strayed from fact?
Published: 26 September 2010, Sunday Times
If you think the rumblings at the recent TUC conference were ominous, take a glance back to 1968. That April, when Barbara Castle became secretary of state for employment and productivity, she was faced with a nation where industry had been crippled by more than 2,000 strikes and 4m lost working days in the previous 12 months. On June 7, when news of a walkout by the 187 female machinists at Ford’s giant Dagenham plant reached Castle’s desk, it was merely another ritual down-tooling, a speck on a broader political landscape that was to feature anti-Vietnam protests, Paris aflame and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
“I once again stressed the useless damage to exports which is going on,” she tut-tutted in her diary, adding a gripe about the “commies” within the union rank and file. For Castle, a de facto one-woman conciliation service, Ford Dagenham was a pain: near-perpetual industrial unrest, with 15 unions locked in internecine bickering, an embarrassment to its American owners.
Castle continued to downplay the machinists’ dispute over the years, according it only two pages in her 1993 autobiography, Fighting All the Way. Yet, four decades on, it is hailed as a watershed moment for women. “I don’t think Barbara understood 1970s feminism,” says Anne Perkins, author of Red Queen, Castle’s official biography. “She came from that generation that saw single-issue politics as deeply damaging to the wider objective.”
The Dagenham women’s complaint appeared routine. The machinists, who made seat covers for Cortinas and Zephyrs, had balked at their downgrading from “semi-skilled” to “unskilled” status. An unpicking of the grievance, however, revealed a greater, universal injustice — that women doing the same job as men were being paid less for it (15% less at Dagenham). It heralded the Equal Pay Act of 1970, a piece of legislation that, in theory, prohibited disparity.
This week sees the release of a feature film about these events, Made in Dagenham. Formerly titled We Want Sex (thanks to a heavily publicised banner proclaiming “We want sex equality”, which remained partially unfurled), the film has been getting good buzz, not least for Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum who reluctantly becomes the ladies’ champion. In 2003, the producer Stephen Woolley and the screenwriter William Ivory both heard a Radio 4 programme about the strike. “Stephen got in touch and said, ‘Do you think there might be a film in this?’” says Ivory, whose credits include Faith, a TV drama about Nottinghamshire women during the 1984 miners’ strike. “I’ve always had that interest — strong women and industrial disputes.”
Despite the voyage through Rita’s life — still scuttling home, amid the crisis, to make her husband’s tea — it is Castle who steals the show
Directed by Nigel Cole, who made Calendar Girls, and with a cast including Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Andrea Riseborough, Jaime Winstone, Rupert Graves, Geraldine James and Rosamund Pike, the movie certainly fits into the feelgood canon of modern kitchen-sinkers such as The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Billy Elliot: not quite gritty social realism.
“It would be interesting, a Ken Loach take on it. Nothing wrong with that,” Ivory chuckles.
“From my point of view, I became interested in the parallel to be drawn between these working-class women, the way they were dealt with in the workplace, and Barbara Castle in parliament, a working-class woman moving in much higher circles.”
Castle, who would have turned 100 next month, would doubtless have been chuffed at her alignment with the proletariat. But then this reclassification of a woman who was an Oxford graduate and daughter of a tax inspector certainly fits the mythology.
Most significantly, there was no Rita O’Grady. Like all the Dagenham women in the film, she is a fictitious amalgam of the real-life protagonists, including the strike leader Rose Boland, since passed away, who was actually something of a militant (“a formidable ringleader”, Castle recorded). Most of this can be forgiven for dramatic licence. “I wanted the political story to be refracted through the women’s personal lives,” Ivory admits. “I couldn’t really go to real people then, because I’d have to be making stuff up.”
Despite the voyage through Rita’s life — still scuttling home, amid the crisis, to make her unemployed husband’s tea — it is Castle who steals the show. Quite what the flame-haired firebrand would have made of such stardom, one can only guess. “I think she would have absolutely loved it,” Perkins says. But there she is, embodied by Miranda Richardson, an unlikely va-va-voom vision in figure-hugging twinset, bossing about a bumbling Harold Wilson (John Sessions), dressing down her male underlings and basking in the glow of victory as she escorts the triumphant Dagenham ladies to meet the press (while simultaneously exchanging fashion tips).
At the film’s climax — a showdown with the strikers at her departmental offices — once the doors are closed, Castle saucily whips out the whisky, making the delegation more pliable in settling on a pay rate worth 92% of the men’s. “I regret there was a tiny bit in the film we took out,” Richardson says. “Her equivalent of rolling her sleeves up was that she’d take off her shoes and pad about the office. It’s a wonderful thing, rather like a lioness walking up and down the cage. Neither did we see her smoking. She smoked like a trooper.”
We then see Castle and the ladies emerge for a triumphant photo call. If we’re being pedantic, this photo call actually took place before the meeting — “In case the talks went sour on us afterwards,” Castle noted shrewdly. The bit about the Scotch is true, though. It proved more influential than the “big mumsy teapot” (as Perkins writes) that Castle had set on the table initially. “I’m almost certain she gave them some cash as well, a tenner,” Perkins adds. “I got that story from her number two, Conrad Heron. He said he couldn’t believe it when he saw the minister get out her purse and give the strikers money.”
Part of being in politics is your armour. Take a breath. It’s never too late. Put on lipstick. Face the world.
As for sexing her up? “Barbara was immensely proud of her figure,” Perkins says, pointing to a woman who had, in her time, had some high-profile relationships. Even Michael Foot, much to Castle’s annoyance, once claimed that they had enjoyed a tryst, in their younger days, in front of the gas fire.
“I suspect Barbara was actually quite a lot faster than she liked to remember,” Perkins says. “I think she had a lot of flings.” Using her femininity was a means for a lone woman to cut through the macho, patronising world of Westminster and the unions, Perkins believes.
“It was a legitimate weapon, the equivalent of going for a beer and a fag with the blokes.”
Hazel Blears, the former Home Office minister — who, as a “Blair babe”, belongs to a group that benefited most obviously from Castle’s legacy — chauffeured her as a young party activist. She spent much of her time contending with her mistress’s habitual tardiness, it would appear. Castle was someone who refused to emerge from the ladies in anything less than full rig. “She said to me, ‘I will give you one piece of advice that will stand you in good stead throughout your political career.’ Which was, ‘It’s never too late to put on your lipstick.’ It’s a serious point as well. Part of being in politics is your armour. Take a breath. It’s never too late. Put on your lipstick. Go out and face the world.”
Castle received the inevitable soft focus from the obituarists on her death in 2002 — the former MP for Blackburn became the “best woman prime minister we never had”, a tireless champion of the oppressed, a trailblazer for women in politics who had beaten the path for the likes of Margaret Thatcher. “She was very radical and very abrasive,” Perkins says. “She did make plenty of enemies. Even her friends found her quite testy. I’m afraid you can’t be focused on making people like you if you want to get things done.” Certainly, government in the late 1960s was no place for the thin-skinned: Wilson once concluded a press conference with the unthinkable remark that “Barbara had to go and get her hair done”.
Within 10 months of the Dagenham dispute, Castle had produced a white paper, In Place of Strife, designed to improve industrial relations, but regarded as a betrayal by union hardliners. Labour lost the 1970 election. Back in power in 1974, Castle’s turn in cabinet was brief, as Wilson gave way to Callaghan, her bête noire, who duly sacked her. She was last seen as a conference grandee, harrumphing about the transition to new Labour. One of the film’s aspects, Ivory says, is that you can see Labour “just storing up trouble for themselves, the winter of discontent and all that kind of stuff”.
Ivory acknowledges that he had to “squeeze” the sense that the Dagenham strike was an immediately “epoch-making moment”, rather than, in reality, “part of an ongoing battle”. Eileen Pullan, now 81, one of the surviving 1968 strikers who stood outside the ministry that day, didn’t feel much of a sense of history either. “At the moment, no, we didn’t,” she recalls. “We were fighting for ourselves. Nobody — well, I didn’t think, ‘Today it’d happen like this.’”
It took a further 16 years, in fact, for the Dagenham machinists to attain employment regrading. By the time of the Equal Pay Act’s royal assent in December 1975, many had lost their jobs as Ford opted for moulded coverings. In 2002, the plant, which at its peak employed 24,000 people and by then had produced nearly 11m vehicles, ceased car assembly to concentrate on manufacturing engines; part of the site is now given over to a wind farm. Nationally, claims of unequal pay continue.
Castle knew this was no magic bullet. As she concluded: “The Ford women’s dispute entered into trade union hagiology.”
Made in Dagenham opens on Friday